UMC Review

Music Review John Michael McCluney: Hymnancipation! ™ Volume One: Advent (On Jordan's Banks) Label: Independent Artist Sound/Style: Traditional hymns performed on synthesizers By Steve Morley In 1969, when Walter Carlos' all-synthesizer album Switched-on Bach was released, a Moog synthesizer occupied an entire room and required enough patch cords to restrain an octopus platoon. The record, featuring classical repertoire translated into what were then state-of-the-art bloops, whizzes and bleeps, was a top-selling curiosity despite its robotic, somewhat clumsy sound. Purists buzzed their outrage more loudly than the wire-laden contraption itself; Pop audiences delighted in the novel effects. Rock music soon became the primary domain of the first-generation synthesizer, though academicians and serious composers continued to explore the potential of the ever-shrinking, voltage-devouring beasts. Along the way, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was shown to be virtually limitless in its pliability—not only did it undergo the electronic treatment in the 1960s, it also became a staple of contemporary worship around that time, when young John Michael McCluney was developing a passionate interest in the music of the Protestant Church. Just as Bach was once sonically revived for a new generation, so has McCluney refreshed age-old hymns in hopes of reintroducing them to listeners who have become accustomed, if not lukewarm, to these nuggets of Christian tradition. McCluney, an accomplished pianist with decades of experience playing sacred music, has begun issuing a collection of hymns arranged for synthesizer titled Hymnancipation! ™. The clever wordplay in the series' name is but a small representation of the keyboardist's considerable creativity. The first of three available CDs, Volume One: Advent, presents seasonal hymns in an array of styles ranging from reverent to whimsical. Once again, musical purists might approach with caution, but the open-minded may find themselves unexpectedly tapping their toes or zoning out blissfully to melodies once reserved for bowed heads. "Rejoice, Rejoice Believers" appears in a sprightly piano arrangement that emphasizes its contemporary flair by materializing out of a pseudo-pipe organ intro, while "The Advent of Our God" refuses to stand still, morphing from its stately opening into a ragtime-flecked interpretation and finally into lively synth-pop. He also employs variously elegant and atmospheric styles that are most successful when they are given full-blown synthesizer treatments, utilizing the moody and evocative sounds unique to such instruments. He gets less mileage from his keyboard's palette of voice, string and brass sounds, which lack the smooth sonorities and execution to be convincing as violin and saxophone surrogates. Partly due to the merely moderate quality of the sound sources used here, McCluney's drum and percussion parts—as well as his rhythmic complexity—can at times detract from pieces that are otherwise soundly conceived and performed. It is a testament to the musician's emotional depth that he can infuse sometimes harsh and chilly sonic textures with so much passion and reinvention. As such, his Advent-themed debut disc provides unorthodox holiday mood music that symbolizes the way Christmas warms winter-weary souls with the promise of new life to come. Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn. This review was developed by, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.


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